29 July 2008

Covenant Life

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 27.3, (March 2003): 34}

The word covenant gets tossed around a lot—in Tabletalk and elsewhere. The difficulty lies in the fact that covenant remains a hard concept to comprehend, yet many theologians teach it to be a central interpretive principle of Scripture and Israel's history.

Simply put, God's covenant with man is gracious and everlasting, resting on his oath that should it fail, he will be torn in two (Gen. 15; cf. Jer. 34:18). However, this simple early covenant grows more complex as the biblical narrative continues. By the time we reach 1 Samuel 12, we see provisos upon which the fulfillment of the covenant seems to rest. How are we to understand God's conditions? We ignore them only at our peril. At the very least, covenant is not merely a hermeneutic principle; rather, it envelopes the believer's earthly pilgrimage (cf. Deut. 6:4–9). 

Herein lies the tension: If the covenant of grace is eternal, why does God impose stipulations? Is the fulfillment of the covenant at risk? One school of thought within orthodoxy suggests that the stakes are the very blessings of the covenant itself: "For Yahweh will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake…. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away" (1 Sam. 12:22, 25). Though the covenant will see its end (Gen. 17:7–8), we may not, for, as our Savior said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15; cf. v. 21). While we can be sure that God will complete his covenant, we have no right to such certainty if we practice lawlessness (Matt. 7:21–23).

Perhaps the greatest tension of all now comes to the fore—our inevitable failure to keep the conditions of this covenant. Who, then, "will put security for me?" (Job 17:3). Praise be to God there is an answer. Our security is in the risen Christ, who met all the conditions on our behalf with his perfect loyalty and obedience. Even further, his work established covenant living for us: we take seriously the conditions of the covenant and strive, not to gain salvation, but to live accordingly in covenant with the creator God.

Failing in this secures our citizenship in that dismal city of ruin where the Tower of Babel stands, where its kings exclaim, "Is this not great Babylon, that I have built…by my mighty power?" (Dan. 4:30), and its depraved inhabitants respond, "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15).


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